Friday, May 24, 2024
North East

‘Weapon drop boxes’ put in Manipur as guns looted during unrest cause concern during polls

Imphal/Churachandpur, April 14: “Please drop your snatched weapons here” reads the poster on a drop box placed on a road from Imphal and Churachandpur in Manipur.
In violence-hit Manipur, the general buzz associated with elections and the related paraphernalia of posters, banners and rallies are missing but it is the presence of these brown boxes with pictures of guns that is symbolic of the strife-ridden society struggling to return to normalcy.
The drop boxes are put at various places with messages asking people to return the weapons snatched from security forces by mobs during the unrest.
According to sources, over 4,200 weapons looted from the armouries in the violence-hit state continue to be untraceable.
Calls to surrender the weapons and putting up drop boxes at several locations across the state, besides security forces launching various combing operations to recover the arms, are among the efforts made during the past 11 months after ethnic clashes rocked the northeastern state.
With only 1,800 weapons of the around 6,000 looted weapons surrendered by the warring communities, officials and experts say this is a matter of concern especially ahead of the elections as they also warn of a resurgence of banned terror groups in the state.
“Over 6000 weapons were snatched from the armouries including .303 rifles, Medium Machine Guns (MMG) and AK assault rifles, carbines, Insas Light Machine Guns (LMG), Insas rifles, M-16 and MP5 rifles… out of these over 1800 have been recovered so far,” a source said.
A drop box for returning weapons snatched from security forces was also set up at the home of a BJP legislator from Imphal East.
The “weapon drop box” poster said, “Please drop your snatched weapons here” both in English and Meitei language with the tagline “Feel free to do so” giving an indication that questions will not be asked about how the weapons were in their possession.
When a PTI reporter visited both Imphal Valley and Churachandpur district, similar drop boxes were spotted at three other locations. A few of them had guns, while the rest were empty. Some people calling themselves “village volunteers” were also spotted at different locations with arms.
District Magistrates across northeastern states have issued orders for licensed firearm holders to deposit their arms at nearby police stations before the elections.
These directives aim to uphold law and order and ensure peaceful election proceedings, particularly in light of past incidents of ethnic violence and arms looting in Manipur.
“Some weapons were recovered from the drop box and some licensed arms have been surrendered too ahead of the elections but the number of such arms is very minuscule,” another source said.
“There are not just looted arms or sophisticated weapons but also country-made weapons, some of them are believed to have been smuggled into the state..this is a matter of concern especially ahead of the elections as there is also an anti-poll sentiment among several groups,” the source said.
The concerns come amid fresh incidents of violence in the state. While two persons were killed in a gunfight that broke out between two armed groups in Imphal East district on Saturday, three persons were injured in a gunfight between armed village volunteers and unidentified gunmen in Tengnoupal district on Friday.
According to officials familiar with the development, the United National Liberation Front (P), a banned terror group, has failed to surrender weapons or provide a list of its members despite signing a ceasefire agreement with the Centre over four months ago, raising concerns among security agencies that its cadres were still carrying out violence in the state.
“Even after three rounds of talks with state authorities, the UNLF, the first Meitei terror outfit to agree to a ceasefire, has not complied with the agreed terms since the agreement was inked on November 29 last,” an official said, on the condition of anonymity.
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), a civil society group of Kuki-Zo tribe, had last month urged its “village volunteers”, not to adhere to directives mandating the surrender of licensed firearms ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
“We need every available weapon to defend our ‘right to life’ and our land from the nefarious intent of the majority Meitei community, which is hell-bent on killing and driving us out of our homes,” the ITLF had said in a statement.
The hill state has witnessed sporadic, sometimes intense, ethnic clashes since May 3 last year between the majority Meitei community and the Kukis, resulting in the loss of over 200 lives. While Meiteis are now concentrated in Imphal city, the Kukis have moved to the hills.
The elections for two Lok Sabha seats in Manipur will be held in two phases on April 19 and 26. While Inner Manipur and some segments of Outer Manipur will vote in the first phase on April 19, the remaining segments of Outer Manipur will vote in Phase 2 on April 26.
The state has traditionally seen a high voter turnout, with more than 82 per cent polling recorded in the 2019 general elections.
However, ethnic violence has cast a shadow on the polls this time, with several civil society groups and affected people questioning its relevance under the current circumstances. There have also been calls from some quarters for boycotting the polls.
Posters of political parties, mega rallies and visible movement of leaders – the traditional elements of campaigning – are conspicuously missing in the strife-torn state.
The only visible hint of elections is the hoardings put up by local election authorities, urging citizens to exercise their franchise.
A radical Meitei group, Arambai Tenggol, which recently compelled legislators to take an oath at Kangla Fort, has issued directives against campaign activities like the use of banners and flags There is a subdued campaigning atmosphere, with party workers citing the state’s sombre mood post-violence. (PTI)